Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Bard's Last Hurrah

For well over a century there have been those who doubt that William Shakespeare of Stratford on Avon wrote the plays historically attributed to him. The controversy has always peeked my interest and the more I look into it the more my mind is set that the man from Stradford was indeed the bard. The latest piece I have stumbled across concerned Shakespeare's personal life and how it relates to the plays.

The real origin of the doubts about the authorship of Shakespeare's plays dates back to the early nineteenth century. Before that, it was taken as an incontrovertible fact. But in the nineteenth century, amid the culture of owning slaves and the science of phrenology, there was the concept that some people were better then others. It led to the assumption that more primitive peoples were mentally inferior and that the upper classes were mentally superior to the lower classes. As we know today, that is totally untrue, but along with that, it was called into question how a man who was barely educated, from a middle class family in the small town of Stratford could have moved to London and crafted plays that have come to be regarded as the best literature in the English language. The doubts rolled in and a slew of candidates for the real author were put forward.

The only problem with this scenario is that there are absolutely no facts to back up the idea that someone else wrote and William Shakespeare was just an actor and theater owner. What is has done is to send those who hold that Shakespeare was the author on a quest for every last piece of documentation and evidence that could possibly exist. The shear volume of information retrieved from the Elizabethan and early Jacobian era is astounding. Every piece of evidence points to one answer, that Shakespeare did his own writing.

As a writer myself, I have always been quite offended that the only reason Shakespeare couldn't have done his own writing was because of his class and perceived education and literacy status. The most prominent alternate candidates do have that pedigree and were known to write, but there is no concrete evidence to link a single one of them to the plays. Plus, it requires all the extant attestations that William Shakespeare was from Stratford and wrote the plays. Particularly the attestations in the First Folio, be false and that there was some conspiracy afoot to preserve the secrecy of the real author. We call such ideas that lack evidence and are based more on the alternate theory or denying the real evidence a conspiracy theory. Some of the other ones are that we didn't really land on the moon and the 9/11 was an inside job. Again, no basis in fact, just a denial of the official history and facts and alternate theories that really make no sense.

Then we come to his last plays. His son, Hamnet (named after a family friend in Stratford), died at the age of 11. Just a few years later, in Twelfth Night, we find fraternal twins (mirroring Shakespeare's own children Hamnet and Judith) and the girl thinks the boy dead. It is a main focus of the play. Then we come to Hamlet. The name is different, but similar, but it is the true sense of loss that fills the story that links this play to Hamlet's son. Records of who played what part indicates that Shakespeare played the Ghost. It is an interesting twist on speaking beyond the grave.

But the real interesting bit comes from The Tempest. This story has no direct origins and appears to be original, inspired by news of the day. The records of who played the roll indicate Shakespeare himself played Prospero and that it was not performed at the Globe, but at an indoor theater where the lighting could better be controlled and would call for additional stage directions. If that is true, it is very telling that the words Prospero speaks are words of farewell, appropriate to a writer and actor in his last work. The lines seem to have double meaning, in the story carrying a strong meaning and for Shakespeare himself having a second meaning. This was the last play written and last performance of Shakespeare. He soon retired to Stratford and died five years later. All the dates correspond and it is far too great a coincidence that following the last play written by Shakespeare, the actor retired and that the lines he spoke on stage were so very poignant to a man planning on retiring. None of the alternate candidates have such a connection to the plays.

Sometimes it is hard to believe who holds an anti-Stratfordian opinion. Sir Derek Jacobi does and Samuel Clemens did. But at their heart, the words of Shakespeare have something that requires one thing of the writer, genius. No mind, no matter family status or education, could create such lasting and deeply moving works without genius. Genius knows no class and is not hindered by education. For the one thing that the plays of William Shakespeare most certainly are, are works to be spoken, not read. These are plays by an actor for actors. They offer some of the most challenging parts every created. With few exceptions, we only have dialog to get across to the audience who these characters are and it is done in a masterful and genius way. Yet in The Tempest we have what amounts to a sign off. The perfect end to a glorious career as writer and actor. Prospero is the main character, front and center and has the last lines. Playing Prospero, Shakespeare would have been on stage almost constantly. What a treat for his audience. A man noted as both a playwright and an actor (something we have many of in our own time) having a grand exit as both. Oh, to have been in that audience on the last night he performed.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Keel, Ribs, and Planking

A few days ago I discovered videos of a class Brandon Sanderson taught in 2012 on writing at BYU ( As I was watching, I began to see a new way to describe how I write. I write in the same way they used to build wooden ships. I start with the keel - the story from beginning to end, with little fleshed out in the middle. then I add in the ribs, knees, planking, masts, rigging, sails, and paint. Now that I have you confused, let me explain.

The keel is the core of building a wooden ship, like USS Constitution. It is what everything attaches to. This is your main storyline, your main idea. The thing that runs from beginning to ending. You know you start with the bow and end with the rudder, but what lies between is only an idea until the rest is built. You don't even know what the rudder will look like or how far it will turn, it's too soon for that, but you know where it meets the keel. You know where your story leads and what the end scene will be, even if you don't know how it plays out.

There are several ways to build the ship from here and I could describe in detail how a modern engineer would do it or an artist, but neither of those fit the way I work. An modern engineer would have a full CG plan of the ship done and just have to make the parts and put them together (the outliner). An artist might just wing it and through trial and error create the ribs, lay over the planking and so on (a pantster). The way it was done back in the day is closer to the way I write. I lay down the keel, construct the ribs, from bow to stern, lay in the beams, knees, overlay it with planking, starting at the keep and working up to the gunwales, then caulk the planks to make them watertight, then tar the hull and overlay it with copper sheathing (if I want it to last), then launch it. That is the first draft. A story complete and in the shape I want it, but with out the final polish. At a distance the hull looks complete, but there is work yet to do, but it does mean the story is set.

With the story set, it is time to edit, polish and finish it up. When it is ready, the hull slides down the ways into the water. So to when the story is finished and ready, it is time to submit it to agents, publishers, or get it ready for self-publishing. The book release is like a ship's maiden voyage, fully outfitted, crewed, and ready for the sea. The journey from finished hull and launching to maiden voyage is like taking that finished and complete manuscript and putting the final touches on it, editing, formatting, and giving it a cover and sending it out into the world of readers. There are many things to do to finish a book, but that story, laid down in the rough draft, remains constant. It all goes back to the keel, that original story idea and leads you from the opening lines to the final chapter.